In four days 51 black bears were killed in Maryland. With little more than 500 American black bears living in the state and a majority of residents preferring a non-lethal alternative to black bear control, the hunting season for black bears took place last week for a third year in a row. But was the decision to reopen the hunt after a 51-year-old ban too soon for this typically peaceful omnivore?
History of the Hunt
The 51-year-old ban on hunting the state’s largest land animal was lifted in 2004 after the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) claimed to have studied hard on the topic. In the mid-1900’s, the black bear was a highly endangered species in Maryland because of logging and hunting. By 1991 there were only 79 black bears found in the wild according to DNR. During the ban, the black bear began a slow growth back up the ladder, but remained mostly in the western counties such as Garrett and Allegany. Scarcely 300 bears later, DNR granted Marylanders the right to hunt the black bear through a lottery.
According to the Humane Society of the United States the Annapolis-based Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies conducted a poll of 839 registered voters across the state between October 16 and October 21 on the bear hunt issue. A whopping 72 percent prefer that state officials use non-lethal methods to address bear conflicts. A total of 64 percent of residents across the state want the governor to cancel the black bear hunt, and in western Maryland 53 percent of voters want the hunt canceled. Although, locating this data from the Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies website has been unsuccessful and the link that the Humane Society website used to support its claim was expired as of October 23.
The numbers recorded by DNR seem to suggest an unsteady future. According to the Bear Hunter’s Guide to Hunting Black Bears in Maryland (on DNR’s website), between 1991 and 2000, the black bear population increased by approximately 148 bears. But over the next five years (2005), the black bear population increased by 99 bears. That sounds great, right? It’s important to point out that when everyone says the bear population is abundant, they’re leaving out the other numbers–the mortality numbers. So here’s how it looks to me:
DNR states there were 51 bears killed this year in the hunt (and this number is on the raise yearly).
DNR states there were approximately 52 bears killed in one year (2006) alone by auto collisions (and this number is on the raise yearly).
Hypothetically, if 51 bears are bagged and 52 bears are killed by auto collisions all in the same year, that equals 103 bears killed a year, not including natural deaths.
DNR states an additional 17 deaths caused by something other than auto collisions and hunting in 2006.
That equals about 120 bear deaths that could happen in just one year. At a state rate, that is 600 bears killed in five years.
There was a recorded increase of 99 bears in five years.
Hence, more bears are likely killed in one year than are increasing the population in five years.
If we continue at this rate, there will be a slow decrease in the bear population. Black bears will have to have a better birth and survival rate to keep up.
The Maryland black bear is facing a lot for a species that only just made a “true wildlife recovery” worth celebrating, as DNR put it in the Bear Hunter’s Guide. Their population is threatened by not only natural death, a low reproduction rate, development, and automobile collisions, but by hunting too.Mature, healthy black bears, starting at the age of 3- to 4-years-old, breed only every 2 years. The female remains pregnant during the fall and winter months, the seasons noted for bear hunting. The average number of cubs birthed is two to three, but first time mothers may only have one cub. It takes baby bears a year and a half before becoming independent enough to survive without their mothers. With such a low reproductive rate, and a greater risk of being hunted or killed on the road, it’s hard to imagine that the black bear population will be able to sustain an increase or even a steady balance in Maryland, especially when the DNR allows more and more bears to be hunted every year.
The DNR target for bagged bears started at 30 in 2004 and has risen to between 50 and 70 this year, although the hunt was ceased at 51. That’s no small amount in comparison with the bruin’s population.
Fears to Rest
Pro-bear hunters responded favorably to this year’s hunt in all the news forums. They support their opinions by claiming that bears are dangerous, causing damage to farms, and scaring parents from allowing their children outdoors. These claims can all be squelched by the very same group that has allowed them to hunt. “Most of the problems with bears can be handled through education,” stated DNR on their wildlife FAQs page. It lists a number of ways humans can live in balance with black bears, starting with avoiding contact all together. Just remember to take in your dog food and empty your bird feeders before nightfall, and only put out your garbage can on trash day.“
Bears will not normally come near homes unless there is something that attracts them to the area,” the DNR website says. It also points out that the American black bear is “largely vegetarian,” preferring berries, nuts, insects, grasses, and fish. That’s not to say that they don’t eat small mammals, such as young deer or chickens. Bears were actually one of the most important predators to the white-tailed deer. Since the demise of the bear, deer have become grossly over populated, causing health problems for the species and countless automobile accidents in Maryland. DNR also lists ways that farmers can protect their crop and livestock from bears, and offer compensation, although many note the compensation is too small.
It is possible to live with black bears. Despite the fear that surrounds them, there have been no human deaths caused by bears in Maryland’s recorded history. “In Maryland there are no known cases of a human being attacked by a black bear,” according to DNR.
Across the United States, there have only been 56 human deaths caused by bears on record for the last 100 years, as stated by Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.While caution should always be used with bears, we face more immediate dangers from human predators and car accidents than from bears in this state.
DNR needs to recall its decision to hold black bear hunts in Maryland until the bruin have had more time to sustain their numbers. It could be argued that hunting is sometimes necessary, as in the case of the white-tailed deer, but the black bear problem has not reached the same extent. Right now the only purpose of the hunt is to give pro-hunters a trophy. Why risk placing the black bear back on the endangered list just to please one group of people?
*Please note that this is an opinion piece and is not presented as news. This is simply how the author (a tree-hugging animal lover) interpreted the data she was able to locate and review. To get the full story about the bear hunt and make your own decision about what DNR should do, please follow the links within and read previous articles and comments in local news papers. If you have an opinion you would like to share or data to add to the topic, please feel free to comment on this piece.